SOS and crumbling capital

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January 23rd 2019
Published: January 23rd 2019
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Muang Khoun

We start our day at the Chinese restaurant with a glass of tea and a fried egg breakfast. The tea looks like it has twigs floating in it. Tastes fine though. The eggs are great, but why do they serve them with a mixed salad? We eat the eggs and leave the salad.

This morning we are heading to old Xieng Khoun, the region’s old capital city, but not before a trip to the SOS Children’s village. We have often been handed envelopes for donating unused foreign currency on return to the UK airline flights but never quite known anything about the charity. It turns out to be an orphanage with a modern, less institution-like approach. The kids (who are not all orphans), live in ‘families’ with a house mother. This village is aimed towards bomb victims. The parents of these children have either been killed or maimed by the UXO which still litters the area. Thus they are unable to work and provide for their children.

First we go to the market where our tour guide, Mr K, helps us to purchase books, pencils, crayons and a large football for the kids. Then we visit the village office where our gifts are carefully documented. The children are all at school - the SOS village has two of its own schools, infant and junior. Visitors are not encouraged to meet with the children anyway as they do not want the village turned into a zoo and they need to protect against traffickers, paedophiles and such like. This is all entirely understandable.

The director takes us on a tour of the village which is impressive. Sturdy houses are built around a neat central garden with a general play area, football field, table tennis and boules. Each house can take ten children of mixed ages with one house mother to cook, clean, explain the importance of education and teach moral values. The children help with chores and live very much as one large family. Siblings are also kept together end never split up. Apparently they do not ever turn anyone away but some children may decide to return to their parents at a later date, usually when they are old enough to help at home. We are told that the charity relies on foreign aid but it all looks smooth and well oiled. Certainly a worthwhile visit.

Now we are heading to Old Xieng Khuang. The guide book explains that it’s OK but nothing to write home about. That’s correct but, oh well, I’m writing about it anyway. The attractions consist of a group of crumbling stupas and a derelict French mansion. Invaded by the Chinese and Vietnamese in the 19th century, followed by two Indo-China wars, there isn’t a lot left to see!

We start at the monastery of Wat Si Phoum. Here a large Buddha with a bright yellow sash who has seen better days, sits behind eight brick columns. Like all serious devotees, we place our incense sticks in an urn and attempt to light them - it’s no mean feat as the earth is baked bone dry and the cigarette lighter we have borrowed is temperamental.

Next we arrive at the French colonial building. Crikey they are scraping the bottom of the barrel! It’s the remains of an administration building - completely derelict and stripped of anything that might have been of any interest - even the fireplaces have been ripped out. At least they did not have the gall to charge us to see this place - there is an admission fee everywhere else!

Finally, we arrive at two stupas: That Foun, a tower-like edifice where yet another admission fee must be paid. This first spire is around 25m tall, built in 1576 and now definitely leaning. Some restoration work has been started at the base of the structure. On the hill above stands the smaller and even more decrepit That Chom Phet. This stupa was damaged by bandits hoping to find treasure inside. There are some nice views of the surrounding countryside.

During the journeys to and from XK, we have time for a long chat with Mr K, discussing everything from worldwide social issues to Brexit! He tells us that he is from the Hmong people and his difficult journey from poverty in the mountains, through to gaining an education to his current status as owner and driver/guide of his own travel agency. It’s very impressive as our impression was that of a well educated man with family money behind him. He explains that his parents supported the Americans during the war so they were forced to run away to hide in the mountains in the aftermath of the communist victory. The family were very poor but came back to live in the Phonsavan area so that the children could attend school.

Since Hmong births are not registered, no one can be certain as to age so they used to admit children to school according to their height. It had something to do with being able to stretch your arm across your head to touch your ear...errr, so maybe also to do with having long arms? Anyway, Mr V was short so did not start school until he was eight!

In the first year of school Mr V claims he understood nothing, in the second year 50% and by the third year he could follow the lessons. This was because lessons were taught in Lao and his language was Hmong. He must have been a good student as he won a scholarship to university. He tells us that his parents were unable to support him as the scholarship only covered tuition, not books, accommodation and food so he was working in a hotel on a night shift to get by. As a result, he had no sleep at all. His teachers frequently asked why he slept during lectures but he would not tell them the reason as it would create a stigma. Finally, he saw an advert for tour guides with UNESCO. He applied, passed the entrance exam and interview so he gave up the university course and began his career as a tour guide.

Mr V tells us that he is the eldest of eight children and now sends money to support his brothers so that they can complete university as it is something he would have liked to do himself. A real rags to riches story and we are both impressed.

This afternoon we visit one of the town’s banks. Mr V has suggested we might have better luck exchanging our ‘dirty money’ there. We decide to give it a go. We are in luck - they are happy to accept 200 of the 300 dollars previously rejected in Vientiane. Better than nothing...and fortunately the remainder of our cash is in new notes.

We make our way back to the MAG Visitor Centre. It’s very close to our guesthouse. Here they have an exhibition of their UXO clearance programme with photographs, exhibits and information boards. It’s interesting that 25% of their volunteers are women - thus raising the status and attitudes towards village women.

This evening we decide to eat at the Chinese restaurant again. Beef with ginger with chicken noodles goes down a treat. Now it’s back to the room for packing...we have to be up at 7.30am tomorrow for the bus to Sam Neua.

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